Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In Praise of Crackpots

There are a lot of crackpots out there. Not just political ones (though there's more of them than any other flavor), but conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landings were faked, people who believe that they can subdue tornadoes with electrical fields, people who believe that they have a cure for cancer but are being oppressed, and, yes, the most strident climate-change deniers. (In the latter category, I'm not including the folks who have legitimate scientific questions about the quality of data or the interpretation of that data or with the theories that arise from it; I'm talking about the folks who disregard any data that supports man-made climate change and embrace any and all data that could be seen as refuting it).

It's very easy to write off crackpots as a bunch of nutjobs. But it wouldn't be wise to do so. Every so often - very rarely indeed, but not never - the crackpot is right.

I think that the thing that makes a crackpot a crackpot is that they grasp on to the non-disprovable. The state of science is such that not everything that is false can necessarily be disproved. In the cases like the moon landing conspiracy, I think the conspiracy theory has been thoroughly disproved and we can ignore these crackpots.

But the are the folks who claim to have a cure for cancer, or who think that there is no anthropogenic climate change are generally in a different place: it's harder to definitively prove them "nutty," and sometimes they aren't.

If 90+% of scientists agree on something (again, take climate change), it is certainly wrong to say that it must be true. It's just super likely to be true. If a huge majority of scientists believe something, then the burden to show them wrong is very high indeed. Science is, after all, based on peer review and you advance if you discover replicable advancements in human knowledge; if it isn't replicable, you don't go very far.

But, ironically, the great leaps in science come from the crackpots. Newton, Galileo, Einstein (just to pick a few of my favorites) were "crackpots", espousing theories that were distinctly in the minority. I think it's fair to say, for example, that much better than 90% of scientists thought time was inelastic prior to Einstein's theory of relativity.

So the great paradox of crackpots is that we should dismiss almost all crackpots almost all of the time, because almost all of them are almost always, well, nuts. But we need to be careful because every now and then one of those "nutjobs" will turn out to be right.

I wonder who the next significant crackpot to be found right will be?

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